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May 01, 2013

Chair's Column

by Stephen J. Wermiel

It is an honor to serve as chair of the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities (IRR) for the 2012–13 bar year. In my years of involvement with the section, I have come to appreciate the remarkable commitment and dedication of IRR members to the important values and principles of equality, fairness, and justice in our legal system and in society at large.

The breadth of issues on which IRR members work to improve the legal system and to protect civil rights and civil liberties is impressive, and this issue of Human Rights magazine is a perfect example. The fast pace of technological advances in our society requires constant vigilance to redefine and protect the right of privacy. And privacy concerns arise in many other settings that are well-explored in the articles that follow.

For my year as chair, I have chosen to spend time thinking about the future of IRR and about the changing face of discrimination in our society and particularly in the legal profession and justice system.

Law students and young lawyers today face a professional landscape that in some ways looks very different from the past but in other ways looks similar to earlier eras. To explore the changing face of discrimination, we have conducted a series of town hall meetings under the title, “Advocating for Equality in the Next Generation.” I plan to report on what we heard at these sessions in detail in an upcoming issue of Human Rights. But suffice it to observe for the moment that the next generation of lawyers is experiencing a next generation of bias in a variety of ways. In some law firms, there are still limits on opportunity for young lawyers based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation. These young lawyers may be substantially more likely to be hired than a generation ago, but their ability to advance may still be held back by who they are. The justice system also imposes challenges for young professionals trying to fight for the rights of clients against bias based both on who the clients are and who is representing them. Obstacles to fair treatment are often encountered, too, in cases involving Native American rights or the rights of persons with disabilities.

This inquiry about inequality through town hall meetings builds on the work of my predecessors. Two years ago, C. Elisia Frazier led IRR to examine the state of civil rights and civil liberties at an important Memphis conference, and last spring my immediate predecessor, Kay Hodge, conducted an exploration of the important role lawyers can play in the movement for education reform to deal with inequality. My successor, Myles Lynk, will undertake efforts to examine economic inequality and discrimination in our system. In all of these efforts, we hope to keep the spotlight on the unfinished—indeed never-ending—fight for civil rights and civil liberties in our democracy and in the world.

Stephen J. Wermiel

Stephen J. Wermiel teaches constitutional law at American University Washington College of Law and is current chair of the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities.